John Hurt -- the 'in' actor who plays outsider roles

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A man who consistently plays the part of the outsider is this year's most "in" serious actor. "I wasn't sure I would recognize you," the interviewer tells him. "I've seen you in just about everything you|ve done and I wasn't sure what John Hurt, the man, really looks like."

"That is the greatest compliment you could pay an actor," he responds graciously. "Now you know I am an ugly, sandy-haired, 40-year-old Irish-Scottish Englishman," he laughs, his carefully enunciated diction reflectting 20 years of diverse acting roles after studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He is still a slim, lithe cricketer, endowed with a face more "interesting" than handsome, the kind of face that points toward a long career as a character actor, once the leading-man roles run out.

Not that John Hurt has been doing very many romantic parts. He is currently appearing on TV as Raskolnikov in PBS's "Masterpiece Theater" production of "Crime and Punishment" and as John Merrick in the Brooksfilms Production of "The Elephant Man" film.

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If one examines Mr. Hurt's more recent roles, one can find still more outsider characterizations: as a defiant homosexual in "The Naked Civil Servant, " as the Roman emperor Caligua in "I, Cladius," as the English addict prisoner in "Midnight Express," and, further back, as the man who betrayed Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons."

He believes that the parts of Raskolnikov and of Merrick the elephant man have something in common.

"Both men felt themselves somehow beyond the pale of their own contemporary society. Both were true outsiders, each trying in his own way to break the barriers and become, somehow, insiders," he says earnestly.

In New York to talk about both current roles and, incidentally to mention the fact that he also has a starring role in the long-awaited, soon-to-be released Michael Cimino film "Heaven's Gate," Mr. Hurt has been viewing American TV in his hotel room. Ironically, he is very defensive about it.

"I get a bit annoyed at the English patting themselves on the back, saying that their television is the best in the world. It is not. We do, occasionally , put out some good stuff. But only a certain sort of stuff. We are not by any means the best in the world when it comes to putting out good, light, professional entertainment like 'Kojak' and 'Starsky and Hutch,' for instance [ two series that were extremely popular when aired on BBC]. They are extremely professional shows which work on the level they were intended to work. It is an insult to call those shows trash.

"When we did "CRime and Punishment,' we were attempting a classic and we had to make that work on the level we had chosen. If it doesn't work, then it is trash. If it does work -- and I think it does -- then we have succeeded. But it is unfair to sneer at any work that succeeds so well as much of the best American series television."

What does Mr. Hurt believe was his greatest accomplishment in the Raskolnikov role?

He shrugs his shoulders and shuffles his feet, enclosed in socks and comfortable sandals. Nobody can accuse this casually dressed (sweater and corduroys) Englishman of being a Savile Row clotheshore. "That is for other people to say, isn't it?"

He is obviously uncomfortable examining his own accomplishments, but continues with just a little urging. "If I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has I've achieved anything, it's to convince the audience that 'there, but for the grace of God, go I'. That's what I try to do with every role I undertake."

Was this true of the "Elephant Man" role, too? In this film, produced by Mel Brooks's company but which carefully disregards Mr. Brooks in its publicity in order to avoid the misconception that it is a comedy, Mr. Hurt plays Merrick wearing horrendous makeup (with his face sometimes veiled with a cloth), which throws the burden on his voice, his body movement, his uncanny ability to transmit human emotion. It is a performance that has been acclaimed even by admirers of the theatrical version of the same story (but a completely different production), in which the deformity is portrayed more or less symbolically.

Mr. Hurt, who has seen the stage version of the elephant-man story, tries to avoid saying so, but finally admits that he feels that the play's avoidance of specifically portraying the deformity is a "cop-out."

"The elephant man wasm physically gortesque. The play attempts to show that a deformed man can have a sense of humor and be intelligent. In the film we attempt something different. We go much more for the true sanctity of the man. With everything against him, he managed it. I believe in it totally. I want people to see it. If you get one iota nearer to understanding what the human creature can be, as opposed to what we are making him be, then we are successful."

Mr. Hurt explains that the grotesque makeup took more than six hours to apply , and he worked only every other day. "It was one of the most difficult parts ever.

"I had to rely totally on the director, David Lynch. I couldn't be sure that what I was trying to do was coming across, because total honesty from him or I could not have continued.That has never been the case before -- I've always been self-assured about what I doing."

Now that the elephant man has been portrayed symbolically in the play with just twisted body movement and distorted speech, in the movie with grotesque makeup, strange movement, and speech, how might it be done if ever television got around to it?

Mr. Hurt shrugs his shoulders, indicating that the possibilities might be too outrageous to contemplate. The interviewer suggests that TV might be expected to attempt to utilize its electronic possibilities and somehow transform him into a tricky invisible man. "That would be the ultimate symbolism, wouldn't it?" he says.

He is very amused by how seriously America took "I, Claudius," which he considers to be "a Roman soap opera."

"There were parts of Claudius that were so funny we could hardly get them on tape. Sometimes we just fell about, laughing hysterically. There were moments that were wonderfully light . . . almost vaudeville."

Now that Mr. Hurt has played so many grotesque characters, isn't he afraid that he will be caught in a kind of Lon Chaney syndrome?

"I call myself a mailbox actor insofar as I do whatever comes through the letter box if I like it. I've never had ambitions to do particular parts."

No ambition even to do "Hamlet"?

He smiles. "Well, if somebody actually said: 'John would you like to do 'Hamlet,' I've got the production all set up,' I think I could be easily wooed into doing it. But it would have to be somebody who came to me to do it."

Which medium will he choose first in the future?

"Well," he admits honestly, "I'm only half bankable. A star who is totally bankable can attract the capital necessary to back anything he wants to do. What a sweet position to be in." Insiders in show business now insist that, despite what he thinks, John Hurt is now "bankable."

"But it really doesn't make much difference to me whether I do television or film work. Of course, financially there is a huge difference. American actors would laugh at the fact that if I see $:10,000 [$24,000] out of the whole 'I, Claudius' series I will be very lucky.

"I would like to keep making films. The more i do, the more I am intrigued by them. You reach an enormous number of people on film, just as in television, but film makes a demand on its audiences. You don't just turn it on by chance. You have to make a decision to go see it. I have nothing against the small screen, but the big screen is such an exciting medium on every level."

Some observers would say that film seems to be dying, smitten down by the inroads of television, especially in England. Does Mr. Hurt agree?

He shakes his head vigorously. "No, although I believe it ism in the process of changing. I must admit I was amazed that 'Kramer vs. Kramer' took all those Oscars last year. I was not impressed by it at all. We do better things on television very often. I would love to see the quality of films improve . . . and I believe I will see that. Certainly 'Elephant Man' is moving in the right direction, don't you think?"

Yes.

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